The Language of Dying, by Sarah Pinborough

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – August 2, 2016

Summary: In this emotionally gripping, genre-defying novella from Sarah Pinborough, a woman sits at her father’s bedside, watching the clock tick away the last hours of his life. Her brothers and sisters–she is the middle child of five–have all turned up over the past week to pay their last respects. Each is traumatized in his or her own way, and the bonds that unite them to each other are fragile–as fragile perhaps as the old man’s health.

With her siblings all gone, back to their self-obsessed lives, she is now alone with the faltering wreck of her father’s cancer-ridden body. It is always at times like this when it–the dark and nameless, the impossible, presence that lingers along the fringes of the dark fields beyond the house–comes calling.

As the clock ticks away in the darkness, she can only wait for it to find her, a reunion she both dreads and aches for…

Review: For being such a short book, The Language of Dying is impressively hard to review, especially from an SFF standpoint, since the fantastical elements are rather vague and may in fact not even be real. It reminded me very much of Patrick Ness’s A Monster Calls, in the way that both involve characters coping with impending death, and both also ripped me to emotional shreds.

Her siblings are coming together to be with their father during his last days. The family is broken, breaking further, and all of them have problems of their own to deal with, but they come. And in times of grief, like this one, like times before, the protagonist of the novella finds herself staring out windows, drifting off, waiting for the return of the thing she saw as a child, the dark unicorn-like thing that calls to her.

I mentioned earlier that this novella is short, a hair over 100 pages, and it’s impressive that Pinborough can tell so poignant a story in so little space. Not a word is wasted; you feel the weight of everything as the protagonist struggles with caring for her father, reuniting with her siblings, reflecting on her own traumatic past. Dealing with the guilt of wishing the pain was over for everyone, wishing her father’s life would end so that the healing could begin, while also hating that he’s dying and will soon leave everyone behind. Anyone who has been there for the death of someone or something you’re close to understands this, though we don’t often talk about it, and seeing it addressed so openly was, honestly, a bit of a relief. But it was also part of the gut-punch that The Language of Dying delivers. It forces the reader to confront the unpleasant realities of watching and waiting for someone to die, the internal and external struggles. It’s not an easy read. It isn’t meant to be comforting.

There are elements of fantasy to this book, though they’re extremely downplayed. The story isn’t about a woman who sometimes sees a dark mysterious beast. It’s about a woman whose father is dying. And incidentally, also sometimes sees a dark mysterious beast. To say this book is primarily fantasy is like saying that this review blog is actually a cat blog because I mentioned a few times that I have cats. It’s an element, but it’s not the primary focus. And it’s not entirely clear if the creature is real or whether it’s the product of combining imagination with grief. It’s left vague, open to some interpretation, and it works well. It means the novella is hard to categorize into a particular genre, but some stories defy those boundaries, breaking out to tell a story that can appeal to different people for different reasons.

The Language of Dying needs to be read. It’s powerful and evocative, it’s brutal and honest, it’s painful and cathartic. It’s so much story in so few words, and it’s the sort of story that stays with you long past the final word. It seeps into you and alters you, and whether you read it for the speculative elements or because you’re looking for literature that deals with death, you should still read it. It’s one of those rare books that’s an experience more than anything else, difficult to properly describe, but I can imagine the knowing nods that pass between people who have read it. For some experiences, no words are really needed.

(Received for review from the publisher.)

Every Heart a Doorway, by Seanan McGuire

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – April 5, 2016

Summary: No Solicitations
No Visitors
No Quests

Children have always disappeared under the right conditions; slipping through the shadows under a bed or at the back of a wardrobe, tumbling down rabbit holes and into old wells, and emerging somewhere… else.

But magical lands have little need for used-up miracle children.

Nancy tumbled once, but now she’s back. The things she’s experienced… they change a person. The children under Miss West’s care understand all too well. And each of them is seeking a way back to their own fantasy world.

But Nancy’s arrival marks a change at the Home. There’s a darkness just around each corner, and when tragedy strikes, it’s up to Nancy and her new-found schoolmates to get to the heart of things.

No matter the cost.

Review: Seanan McGuire is a name you can’t really avoid when it comes to urban fantasy. And yet, I don’t think I’d actually read anything of hers until now. I knew the name, but not the works, and after having read and adored Every Heart a Doorway, I have to say that I’m a bit disappointed in myself for not making the time to do so sooner.

What we have is the story of Nancy, and let me take a moment to just right in with the praise because Nancy is one of the few asexual characters I have ever found in fiction. There have been a few, but often when present, authors fall back on explaining a character’s asexuality away as a result of trauma or that it was traded away for something (usually a religious something). McGuire is quick to mention that there’s a difference between celibacy and asexuality, that someone who’s asexual can absolutely have romantic feelings for someone, and in only a few short lines, scattered here and there throughout the novella, eradicate many of the assumptions that people often have about ace individuals. So many thanks to McGuire for improving visibility and representation for people like myself.

Anyway, this is Nancy’s story. And Nancy now finds herself at Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children, after having disappeared for a time into a different world, and when her parents have no idea how to bring back the person she used to be. But Eleanor’s establishment isn’t just a rehab place for emotionally unstable teens, as Nancy suspects. It’s actually for people just like her, people who has crossed over into other worlds and have been changed for the experience. Bit by bit Nancy learns that she’s not alone in her experiences, that everyone at Eleanor’s has traveled elsewhere at some point in their lives, and that there are countless worlds, all different but all, in their way, quantifiable. Although Nancy can’t return to the world that gave her such comfort for a time, it seems her life might be starting to look up.

That is, until the murders begin.

The story that follows has Nancy and her newfound companions attempting to catch the culprit and figure out why they’re killing off teens at the house. McGuire does a great job of building suspense and laying out the mystery piece by piece, leaving the reader narrowing down the list of suspects as events unfold. It wasn’t so much a case of “Is it this person? No? How about that person?” so much as it was, “It could be these people. Okay, now I know it can’t be that one… Or that one…” And so on. It’s not always a comfortable story. The characters are not your typical teens, even by urban fantasy standards. There are gruesome circumstances, frank talk of death and dismemberment, and sometimes you end up liking characters even as they frustrate and repulse you. But it’s still a fantastic story with a fantastic cast (one of whom is a well-presented trans guy, and yes, there is some antagonism from some of the other students over it all, because people are people and that means they can be ignorant sometimes), and I loved sinking into it all.

On a personal level, this story resonated with me in a far deeper way than I expected it to. Each of the characters who had gone to different worlds found that the new world suited them on a soul-deep level, that however much they had to change and learn new behaviours, there was something right about it, even when it was difficult. And I’d be lying if I said I’d never had that kind of experience myself. It was a long-ago dream, but in it I went somewhere else, somewhere out of time, where I didn’t have to worry about mundane problems, where I had an endless amount of books to read and video games to play, where I could stay always, and the proviso is that I had to stay silent. People there had an hour a day to interact, to talk quietly with each other, but for the most part, we stuck to ourselves, passing endless time in silence, happy because that was what suited us. I told my friends about that dream, how it felt so comfortable for me, almost ideal, and it worried them rather than intrigued them, because, well, most healthy people don’t dream about leaving everything behind and being silent forever. And I guess I can see that. But to me, it was still comfort. A place to go to in my mind that was still and peaceful and had no worries with it, and it was mine.

That was years ago. I still think of it, and I still remember the peace that came along with what I eventually just called the Silence.

And then along comes Seanan McGuire, writing about a bunch of people who found worlds that fit them as well as the Silence fit me, and so you might be able to understand why reading this hit me so hard.

Anyway…

The ending of Every Heart a Doorway is a bittersweet one, one that I didn’t know if McGuire would do. On one hand, Nancy desperately wants to return to the Halls of the Dead, though she’s told it’s highly unlikely she’ll ever be able to do so. Few people return to their worlds. On the other hand, you do see her form bonds with people in this world, bonds that she would have to give up if ever she did return. So no decision is without its drawbacks, and without giving away too much of what happens at the very end, I have to say that I think the author handled it well. As I said, it was bittersweet, full of calm-but-deep emotion, and as satisfying as it could get.

This is a novella for the misfits, the people who don’t belong, the people who hope that there’s a place for them out there, even if it’s a strange and fantastical place that nobody else understands. It’s a story for the curious and the brave, for those who enjoy urban fantasy and magical realism but who are looking for a different flavour in their reading. It’s short and wonderful, it’s an adventure in both clarity and obscurity, and I know that I’ll be rereading this one again in the future. In all, an amazing introduction to McGuire’s writing!

(Received for review from the publisher.)

Without Light or Guide, by T Frohock

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – November 3, 2015

Summary: Always holding themselves aloft from the affairs of mortals, Los Nefilim have thrived for eons. But with the Spanish Civil War looming, their fragile independence is shaken by the machinations of angels and daimons…and a half-breed caught in-between.

For although Diago Alvarez has pledged his loyalty to Los Nefilim, there are many who don’t trust his daimonic blood. And with the re-emergence of his father—a Nefil who sold his soul to a daimon—the fear is Diago will soon follow the same path.

Yet even as Diago tries to prove his allegiance, events conspire that only fuel the other Nefilim’s suspicions—including the fact that every mortal Diago has known in Barcelona is being brutally murdered.

The second novella in T. Frohock’s Los Nefilim series, Without Light or Guide continues Diago’s journey through a world he was born into, yet doesn’t quite understand.

Thoughts: By this point, I’m no stranger to Frohock’s writing, and I know fairly well in advance that I’m extremely likely to enjoy what she does. And given that the previous novella in this series, In Midnight’s Silence, tripped all the right triggers with me, I was very eager to get my hands on the sequel and continue with Diago’s story.

Without Light or Guide doesn’t disappoint. Picking up very shortly after where the previous novella left off, Diago’s loyalty to some of the Nefilim is still uncertain, to the point that even though those closest to him believe that he won’t betray them, Diago himself is unsure. His heritage is against him, his history is against him, the fact that he feels unwelcome makes him pull away further, and really, I feel for the guy, because that’s a lousy situation to be in. And when people who used to associate with him start turning up dead, he appears even more suspicious in the eyes of those who already weren’t inclined to think the best of him. And Diago’s father, Alvaro, beckons to Diago for purposes unknown…

As terrible as it is for Diago to be stuck in the middle in a completely different way than he was last time, it was also interesting to see how he copes with it all. The people most important to him believe him him, as I mentioned, which provides a point of stability when doubt plagues him, but we get to see some of the internal struggle as he battles with the push and pull of various expectations. And it’s not so much that he feels temptation to side with daimons as much as it is that he feels the urge to fall back on old habits and run from the things that are causing him problems in the first place, even if that means leaving good things behind. Maybe it’s a little bit of me forcing my own issues on a character, but I see in him a man who wants very much to reconcile so many parts of his life and keeps getting shot down.

It was the major scene with his father that really got to me, in that regard. Diago wants, in a way, to put some things behind him and help Alvaro despite their awkward history, and then when Alvaro betrays him once again… It was the kind of thing that hit very close to home with me, because I’ve experienced that pain of reaching out to someone again and again and being disappointed every time, to the point where you have to eventually turn your back on family and see them for the flawed individuals they are. You owe them no loyalty when they repeatedly betray you.

I mention this for a reason beyond just the personal: one of the marks of a good author is their ability to make you feel. Even if you haven’t been in a similar position to Diago’s, you can’t help but have your heart ache just a little bit during that scene, and with the following emotional rise as Frohock dips a toe just a little bit into the cheesy side of things and has the power of love save the day. Evocative prose bring it all to fantastic life on the page, and you feel every up and down as the story flows along and Diago’s journey continues.

I love this series. Frohock’s storytelling shines as she tells a story of redemption and love and faith, all wrapped together with angels and demons and music and vivid history. It’s a series with a low level of investment and such a high payoff that if you enjoy any of those things, or just enjoy dark fantasy in general, then you’d be foolish to overlook it. Without Light or Guide is a brilliant follow-up to In Midnight’s Silence, hands down, and I’m already eagerly anticipating visiting all the characters again in the next installment.

(Received for review via the publisher.)

The Night of the Long Knives, by Fritz Leiber

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Author’s GoodReads page | Publisher’s website
Publication date – 1960, reprinted July 15, 2015

Summary: I was one hundred miles from Nowhere ― and I mean that literally ― when I spotted this girl out of the corner of my eye. I’d been keeping an extra lookout because I still expected the other undead bugger left over from the murder party at Nowhere to be stalking me.

Welcome to Deathland, a postapocalyptic nuclear desert where kill or be killed is the law of the land. The radiation-damaged survivors of this ravaged region are consumed by the urge to murder each other, making partnership of any sort a lethal risk. But when two drifters forge an uneasy truce, the possibility of a new life beckons.

Written by a multiple Hugo Award–winning author and one of the founders of the sword-and-sorcery genre, this novel-length magazine story first appeared at the height of Cold War paranoia. Fritz Leiber’s thought-provoking tale addresses timeless questions about the influences of community and culture as well as the individual struggle to reform.

Thoughts: Ray is a murderer, wandering the Deathlands alone. If he sees another human being, he must fight down one of two primal urges: to kill or to copulate. That’s just how life is. Sure, there may be people out there who don’t do that, who live in social groups and cling to post-apocalyptic life in any way they can, but that’s not Ray’s way. And it’s a chance meeting with Alice, and then with Pop, that changes how he looks at his life, and the world in which he lives.

Night of the Long Knives is one of those stories that gives me a lot of difficulty when trying to review. It’s good. I can see that it’s good, full of interesting thoughts about religion and death and culture, much of it unsaid but still implied. It’s told from an interesting perspective, a man who’s very much a loner and part of a culture of death. it had a fun twist at the end whereby you think there’s going to be mass deaths, only instead it turns out to be mass salvation from a plague.

I should have loved it. Instead I viewed it as… okay. Objectively good, but really not my cup of tea.

I liked the themes more than the execution, really. Ray and Alice are murderers by culture, life in the Deathlands shaping them into people who kill people just because primal human instinct tells them to. Pop is an ex-murderer, someone who has made a choice not to kill and who struggles with fighting that urge. Like Ray, he played a part in the Last War, the war that brought North America, at least, to its knees and remade it into something desperate and harsh. There’s discussion over why someone would choose to go against their urges, whether remote mass killings in war count as murders or not, treating part of the accepted human condition as merely another thing to be overcome. These are some great theme, fertile ground for discussion and reflection.

But the story just didn’t do it for me.

Perhaps it was because as fascinating as those themes are, I felt such a disconnect from them that it was hard for me to really appreciate that way of life and the struggle to change it. The fact that Leiber is also hailed as such a phenomenal writer made me feel, through the whole thing, that this was just utter allegory for something else entirely, and I just wasn’t smart enough or insightful enough to figure out what. Stories that leave me wishing I was more intelligent are great, because they give me drive to better myself, but they are pretty frustrating during the initial read.

At fewer than 100 pages, The Night of the Long Knives flies by despite the dark concepts it deals with, and so even when it may not be an enjoyable read, per se, it is still objectively good, stylistically worthwhile and set in a fairly common but still unique post-apocalyptic setting. It does hold up and is good reading even over half a century since its initial publication, and you don’t find too many works that you can say that about. Older sci-fi tends to suffer from the limitations of its day, and while there was a little bit of that in here, it was only a touchpoint, and a subtle one, to show the difference of North America after a massive war. A few phrases here and there that sound dated or awkward to modern ears, but nothing that isn’t easily handwaved as just another part of the story and the time it takes place in. So even if, like me, you don’t end up that fond of this novella in the long run, I’d say it’s still worth reading just to see a good example of something that stands the test of time and raises some interesting questions about morality and instinct.

(Received for review from the publisher.)

In Midnight’s Silence, by T Frohock

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – June 23, 2015

Summary: The fate of mankind has nothing to do with mankind…

Born of an angel and a daimon, Diago Alvarez is a singular being in a country torn by a looming civil war and the spiritual struggle between the forces of angels and daimons. With allegiance to no one but his partner Miquel, he is content to simply live in Barcelona, caring only for the man he loves and the music he makes. Yet, neither side is satisfied to let him lead this domesticated life and, knowing they can’t get to him directly, they do the one thing he’s always feared.

They go after Miquel.

Now, in order to save his lover’s life, he is forced by an angel to perform a gruesome task: feed a child to the daimon Moloch in exchange for a coin that will limit the extent of the world’s next war. The mission is fraught with danger, the time he has to accomplish it is limited…and the child he is to sacrifice is the son Diago never knew existed.

A lyrical tale in a world of music and magic, T. Frohock’s In Midnight’s Silence shows the lengths a man will go to save the people he loves, and the sides he’ll choose when the sidelines are no longer an option.

Thoughts: I have such a soft spot for anything to do with fallen angels. I’ve had a fascination with them for years, pretty much since I was in my teens, and so am just a touch predisposed to enjoy stories involving them. Add in male/male romance, and you pretty much have something that trip a couple of my biggest triggers in the best way. Knowing Frohock’s writing, and knowing those two things, I figured I was going to love this novella even before I started reading the first page.

Diago is a man torn between two worlds. With both daimonic and angelic heritage, he’s loyal to neither, remaining as neutral as he can while still supporting Miquel, his angelic lover who is bound to thwart daimons. It’s a fine line to walk, and it doesn’t come easy. But when Miquel disappears and Diago’s mysterious past comes back to haunt him, he finds himself unable to remain quite so neutral as everything hits hard and close to home.

Characters like Diago are great to read, occupying that great space between insider and outsider. In remaining neutral, at least officially, he allows the reader an opportunity to see both sides while choosing neither. Even so, though, it’s fairly clear early on that he favours the angels more than daimons. Perhaps because of Miquel, perhaps because he just generally disagrees with daimons but can’t bring himself to make that his official stance, I can’t really say. Even so, most of the story wasn’t about a man caught in the middle. It had more to do with personal salvation, with acceptance, with facing your past and acknowledging who and what it made you, with sacrifice and responsibility. How the past can catch up to you no matter how much you try to outrun or deny it, and sometimes that turns out to be a mixed blessing rather than an outright curse. There are so many of these little themes that add up to a strong message, and not a word wasted as the story gets told.

It’s worth pointing out that I love the subtleties in the way the author handled angels. They are immortal beings, yes, but they don’t hang around in the same body for hundreds of years. They can be killed. And when they die, they’re reborn into new bodies, to keep living. (Another good trigger tripped, there; I’m a sucker for reincarnation.) The new bodies bear scars and injuries from the previous body, and it’s established that some angels who can’t handle the idea of a new life with such disfigurements will choose to be enslaved by daimons instead. Which sounds shallow and selfish, until you think that some of them might have been in the reincarnation cycle for centuries, and have faced torture, and wanting an escape to that is nothing to be chosen lightly. This isn’t a major plot point within In Midnight’s Silence, but it speaks to the large amount of worldbuilding that Frohock put into a novella that would still have been fantastic even without the extra detail.

In Midnight’s Silence is dark without going over the top, poignant without being rigidly moral. And considering some of the themes involved, such as sexual consent or taking responsibility for someone else’s actions, that’s actually pretty impressive.

This is only the first part of an ongoing story, and I, for one, and eager to read part 2 already! Frohock has started something wonderful here, the perfect balance of dark and hopeful, draws a distinction between religion, faith, a spirituality right from the get-go; it’s unique and brilliant and, for all that it’s short, it has some reread value if you’ve got an interest in religious mythologies. It’s hard to escape the lure of the web that Frohock has woven, and I’m not inclined to try. As I said before, this novella trips all the right triggers, and  suspect it will continue to do so as the story expands.

(Received for review as part of a book tour.)

We Are All Completely Fine, by Daryl Gregory

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – July 21, 2014

Summary: Harrison is the Monster Detective, a storybook hero. Now he’s in his mid-thirties and spends most of his time not sleeping.

Stan became a minor celebrity after being partially eaten by cannibals. Barbara is haunted by the messages carved upon her bones. Greta may or may not be a mass-murdering arsonist. And for some reason, Martin never takes off his sunglasses.

Unsurprisingly, no one believes their horrific tales until they are sought out by psychotherapist Dr. Jan Sayer. What happens when these likely-insane outcasts join a support group? Together they must discover which monsters they face are within and which are lurking in plain sight.

Thoughts: A group therapy session. A support group for survivors, only these aren’t your average survivors of terrible events, if anyone in such a situation could be considered an “average” survivor. Each one has faced supernatural horrors and has come out the other side, not whole, definitely damaged, but still alive to tell their stories. But when nobody wants to hear those stories, when nobody believes the truth behind the events, who can they turn to but each other, after meeting at a very specialized group put together by Dr. Sayer?

The stories of each of the group members are horrific, ranging from Stan’s experience of being partially dismembered and eaten by a family of cannibals, to Martin’s experience of augmented reality games allowing him to see beyond and come into contact with terrifying creatures. And bit by bit, all their stories do come to light over the course of the novella, and I’m probably not the only reader who thought that it would have made for incredible reading to go deeper into the events themselves, to get a closer look at everything that landed everyone in that therapy group to start with. That Gregory managed to tell such complete stories in such a short space is a real testament to his ability as a writer; as much as I would have loved to have seen more, the important parts of the stories were told, giving you more than enough to appreciate what everyone went through.

I often end up thinking things like this when I read novellas. I’m so used to novels that when I read something shorter, I want more. I want to read it all fleshed out and bigger and long enough to allow me to completely immerse myself in it for days without coming up for air. Novellas are so quick, it feels like I just have a chance to get my feet wet before it’s over. But that perceived weakness really is a strength, too, since the author has such a small space to cram a coherent story into, and the very fact that Gregory can do this just blows me away. We Are All Completely Fine doesn’t just tell the backstories of multiple characters, but also the overarching story that ties them together and keeps things moving forward. It’s multiple stories combined into one, and just take a moment to contemplate the skill that takes to accomplish.

All of the stories fit so perfectly together, with one exception. I found that Dr. Sayer’s story seemed to come out of left field. There were small hints trickling through the cracks, and it was obvious that she wasn’t undamaged by strange events, but the way her story tied back to Stan’s just seemed tacked on. It wasn’t supposed to be obvious until the end, which makes sense since any revelation earlier would have ruined everything, but when her story comes together, it just seemed overdone, like it wasn’t enough for her to have some supernatural connection and be touched by weirdness herself, to be connected to them all by what had happened to Barbara (which affected all the group members, in a way).

But this is entirely a subjective thing and other people may have had no problem with that aspect of her story. It certainly did tie everything up in a neat package, no threads really left dangling except those that were supposed to dangle.

One aspect of the way the story was told that did interest me was the narration, and I’m left puzzled but intrigued by the choice. The first paragraph or so of each chapter is presented as though it’s being told by the same person, using “we” and “us” to indicate the group, so you think that it’s all being told by a member of the group itself. Then it switches to the third person, each chapter highlight one character or another, never going back to the same sort of first-person pronouns until the next chapter begins. It takes a while to realise that eventually, all of the group members have been talked about (and you’re sure that it’s all of them, because the story’s clear to point out the number of males and females in the group very early on), and this mysterious voice who calls everyone “we” isn’t actually going to get talked about. It’s one of those things that can hit you out of nowhere, and once I realised it, I couldn’t help but start to speculate on why. Was there somebody else there after all, an invisible someone watching everything? Was one of the members of the group split, in a sense, to think of themselves in the third person to prevent getting too close to trauma, and if so, which one? Or was it just a cool storytelling trick to hook readers and provide a little more interest? (Not that it needed it, because the story was fantastic even without that as a hook!)

What this all comes down to is that if you’re a fan of horror, or of anything Daryl Gregory has written elsewhere, or just of fantastic novellas that demonstrate exemplary storytelling, then you ought to read We Are All Completely Fine. The pacing is tight, not a word wasted, and for all that most of the immediate action occurs at the end, it never once feels slow or ponderous. Masterful writing and a sensational set of intertwining stories keep you reading, keep you pushing for details, and it’s a great thing to whet your appetite for more of Gregory’s superb writing. It’s early days yet, but this is already a strong contender for Best Novella in 2015’s eventual year-end Best Of lists!

(Received for review from the publisher.)